Have you ever experienced a really, really bad jet lag?
Not the type where you crave dinner at 4 p.m. or feel the need to pop a melatonin before bed. This is something much more daunting and debilitating, an out-of-body experience where all is at once foreign yet familiar. Where you are drowning in a sea of menial and mechanical tasks as if being thrust into a storm without a compass.
One of the hardest moments came a few days ago on the eve of Chinese New Year.
At 4 a.m. EST on January 24, I Facetimed my family as they were preparing dinner in celebration of the holiday. I assured them that I got back and that everything was okay. Later that morning I sat in bed and watched the count of confirmed coronavirus cases go up in real time on social media—dystopia juxtaposed with wishes and blessings for the new year everywhere else—while hiding out in my dorm room in rural North America. I was never able to go back to sleep after that.
These past two weeks back at Bowdoin have been as such, a draining, groggy, disorienting experience of being trapped in a period of perpetual jet lag. My heart is constantly being pulled in three directions—to China, to America and to Italy. It feels as if I have left a little bit of my soul in all these places and could never be complete again.
The adrenaline rush and thrill of being back and seeing friends quickly wore off; instead, I often find myself awkward and alone—all the things that made me doubt if I ever belonged at Bowdoin in the first place coming back to haunt me again.
Science tells us that jet lag occurs when our circadian rhythm is out of sync—our brain cells are literally too confused to operate, depriving us of our sleep, our appetite and our morale as functioning human beings. I have always confronted jet lag with willpower and caffeine. Yet this time around, adjusting back to Bowdoin after abroad proves to be a crucible unlike ever before.
As I wake up once again in a cold sweat on a Saturday morning, I wonder: what if the problem is not purely biological?
To avoid sounding privileged and self-pitying, I confess that I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to go abroad and have a memorable experience. What I am trying to piece together, rather, is the not-so-simple aftermath of such an experience—this prolonged period of re-entry, the intangible feeling of detachment and melancholy that I have tried time after time to articulate.
Since being back, friends, professors and Ben from Dog Bar Jim alike have asked me about abroad. “You’re back! How was abroad?” became the default mode of greeting. Always, I’m tongue-tied trying to address it as the past. To refer to the past would imply that the chapter is truly over with, done and dusted, while perhaps I am not yet ready to let go.
And after all, how does one even begin talking about Italy? How do I convey, with words and mere sentences, the sounds and colors, the heartaches and revelations, the bastardi whom we loved to hate, those midnight escapades along medieval alleyways, countless sunsets, hugs, kisses, poems, cigarettes and millions of ciaos and buona nottes?
Once again I turn to literature and linguistics. Perhaps it is due to the limit of our own linguaggio that we cannot explicate feelings that are at once so concrete yet so nebulous. Jhumpa Lahiri details this impossibility of addressing a past that extends into the present, this “imperfect” tense that arises out of an inability to be separate from our histories, a sense of longing, of incompleteness and of loss, lurking behind as the silent backdrop of our lives.
“Mi identifico con l’imperfetto, perché un senso d’imperfezione ha segnato la mia vita. Sto provando da sempre a migliorarmi, a correggermi, perché mi sono sempre sentita una persona difettosa …. L’ansia che provavo, e talvolta provo ancora, proviene da un senso di inadeguatezza, di essere una delusione,” Lahiri writes. I translate this to say, I identify with the imperfect, because a sense of imperfection has marked my life. I am always trying to improve myself, to perfect myself, because I’ve always felt like a flawed person .… The anxiety I felt, and sometimes still feel, comes from a sense of inadequacy, of being a disappointment.
In my case, therefore, I guess this imperfection has manifested itself in these long, arduous episodes of jet lag.
Maybe my “clock” is still waiting to be adjusted, as I have discovered for myself and suspect for some others. We are all so quickly thrown into the hustle and bustle of junior spring and feel at once sheltered and stifled by the ‘Bowdoin Bubble’ that we have not given ourselves the time to reflect and debrief what happened.
Maybe we are still searching for that point of balance, the place that will allow us to navigate the confines of our worlds both old and new.
If there is any consolation, though, judging from the past six years of my life spent flying to and from two corners of the world, it is the fact that I know this jet lag will eventually pass. It might take days, weeks or even months to feel normal and settled back into Bowdoin again—but it will pass.
Until then, my friends and post-abroad wanderers, ci vuole tempo.
Sabrina Lin is a member of the Class of 2021.